Kathleen Renda: You’re fearless with pattern and color — there’s even blue peony wallpaper on the living room ceiling!
Lee: I went a little wild! This is our first home, and as an artist who creates wallpaper, textiles, and home accessories, I was able to go all out with my own designs. It was also a way to breathe life into a pint-sized 1930s Spanish bungalow. Mind you, the rooms are small, and some of the hand-plastered walls are so wonky, they’re impossible to wallpaper. That’s what happened in the living room — the only straight lines were overhead, so I covered the ceiling in blossoms. The limitations ended up pushing the decor in a fun, playful direction. It’s irreverent, with personality and sophistication, and proof that there’s more to decorating around this architectural style than white walls and tobacco leather.
Any worries that wallpaper would make tiny rooms seem tinier?
It sounds counterintuitive, but the opposite is true. In the living room, the blue ceiling seems to expand until it disappears — you’d swear the room opens out to the sky. The master bedroom is covered in pineapples—a motif that repeats on the matching fabric of the curtains and bed canopy. Being surrounded by all that pattern blurs boundaries, disguising the room’s smallness. You’re also lulled by the background color, a restful celadon borrowed from Korean porcelain.
Your tiger-print fabric has a fierce attitude! What’s the backstory?
They’re definitely not friendly house cats. For my son’s nursery, I wanted an animal pattern that would still seem cool when he’s a teenager. I am of Korean descent, and in our folklore, tigers ward off evil spirits and misfortune; as mystical creatures, their depictions aren’t bound by rules of proportion or anatomical correctness. Mine have powerful teeth and spotted foreheads, and I like to think they possess magic. Here, I paired them with my banana-leaf wallpaper. It’s like they’re roaming in a tropical jungle.
The Asian through lines in your collection aren’t always as overt.
My goal is to create American designs rooted in Korean heritage, and I love when people can’t pinpoint the Asian influences. My pineapple print is a great example: Here’s a fruit that’s a classic symbol of American hospitality, but I surrounded it with a floral crest replicating the paper flowers in the headdresses worn by Korean kings in the 1800s. Also, Koreans are very into their fruit. A big box of it is traditionally given as a gift, and my mother was always making elaborate fruit displays whenever guests came over, including her signature carved-pineapple boat.
How did you end up in such a creative career?
Destiny? My grandfather was an artist in Korea, my mother is a Korean folk painter, and growing up, I was always sketching and taking art lessons. When I was a designer working for Michael S. Smith, I realized there was a gap in the marketplace. I saw plenty of Chinese- and Japanese-inflected wallpapers and textiles, but there were almost none with a Korean bent — I started doing them, and my business was off and running. Now I have a home studio, and it’s heaven. My husband, Max, and I are homebodies; we’re happiest hosting the grandparents, playing with our son, and enjoying our bungalow. It’s dreamy and cozy. I have no idea what I did to deserve this!
See more photos of this gorgeous home:
This story originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of CQ.